Losing Rebel Heart | What I've Learned

The saying goes that the two happiest days of a sailor’s life are the day they buy their boat and the day they sell it. There’s not a quaint expression though, for the unhappiest day of a sailor’s life, the day they lose their boat. 

The Back Story

In the spring of 2014 my husband, Eric, and I, along with our two young daughters, left Marina La Cruz in Nayarit on our 36’ Hans Christian, a blue water cruiser, named Rebel Heart. Most of the sailing world is familiar with our ill-fated trip, a trip we had been planning and preparing for over almost nine years. A cascading series of events eventually led to our needing to hit our EPIRB when we were near the equator, and almost 1,000 miles from land.
The US Air Force dropped four Pararescuemen into the ocean. They inflated a boat and made their way to our vessel. Pararescuemen are elite rescuers and highly skilled medical professionals. Our 13 month old daughter was ill and they began treating her right away. We were with the men on Rebel Heart for 2.5 days until a larger Navy vessel, the Vandegrift, showed up to extract all of us and get our daughter to further care onshore. In order to avoid a navigational hazard, my husband had to scuttle our boat before extracting to the rescue vessel. When Rebel Heart went down, we lost everything, both our worldly possessions (we had no home on land to go back to) and our dreams and life trajectory. 

We were on the Vandegrift for another three days before arriving in San Diego. We walked off the boat and directly into an international media frenzy about our parenting and taking children on boats. Land people did not understand our lifestyle and because they didn’t understand it, they vilified both us personally, and the idea of living with children on the water. The sailing community however, was completely the opposite. Not only did they know us, our vessel, and our levels of preparation, they rallied around the lifestyle itself, writing their own articles and posts to counter the negative ones and loudly proclaiming that it was a life worth living.

It is through the lens of my life experiences on the water that I look at the recent events of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. I am the founder and an active administrator of the Facebook group Women Who Sail. We have almost 13,000 members and are a tight-knit, supportive group of women on both sailing and power boats.  Over the past month our group and the many sub-groups that have sprung from it, have been doing our best to support one another through the devastating storm season of 2017. I’ve watched as friends had to wait for days, first for the storm to hit, and then sometimes for days afterwards to find out if their vessels made it. Many did not. Many, many, many have lost their boats, their businesses, their homes, and their dreams.

I have ached with them as they prepared, as they fled, and as they waited. I have remembered acutely the 2.5 days we spent on Rebel Heart awaiting the larger Navy boat. Every minute of those days I knew my boat was lost to me, but yet there I was still inside her. We spent those days knowing she would be gone. It was like watching a fire slowly burn up your home and not being able to do anything about it. I’ve remembered this pain as I watched my friends’ social media posts blow up as they tracked the storm, as they watched it strengthening, and as they knew with almost certainty that their boats would probably be destroyed. Once we hit the EPIRB, we knew too. It’s a sickening and devastating feeling. 

I have also realized, three and a half years after losing Rebel Heart that I finally have some perspective on what happened and I’ve learned some things about loss. For my friends who have lost everything, this is for you.

Losing Rebel Heart – What I’ve Learned

You will feel shocked. Everything will feel unreal, like it isn’t really happening, at least not to you. This is apparently normal. Take some sort of weird comfort in knowing you are normal in your processing. There will be no way to center yourself. If your boat was your home and your whole life, you will be completely knocked off track. Questions like ‘what now?’ and ‘what next?’ and ‘is this really happening?’ will bang around like an annoying song on repeat in your head. There will be no immediate answers. 

Prepare to be exhausted. Especially if have you children. Prepare to move from place to place, unless you are lucky enough to have a land-based home; many of my friends do not. You will be relying on your own wit and on the kindness of friends and strangers for a while. Try to sleep (this will prove impossible). Instead, you will probably cope in unhealthy ways. As a temporary stop gap, eating too much, drinking too much, or doing what you can to numb your emotions is probably okay, just make sure you stop before you create problems for yourself and others. Eventually you will need to do things like get enough sleep, eat right, exercise, and see a therapist. In the first few weeks of the loss though, those things might seem impossible.

It could take you awhile to realize it, but losing your boat and home is truly traumatic. You’ve suffered a trauma, and it will start to show up in little ways. Like how I bought the girls and myself brand new life jackets weeks after losing Rebel Heart. We had moved into a studio, we had no boat, not even a kayak or a canoe. I bought high quality life jackets for us all though and only realized how weird it was as I was shoving them up onto a shelf in the closet telling myself, ‘okay, now we’ll be safe.’ You might find it impossible to look at pictures of boats or read about sailing or cruising. For almost a year after losing Rebel Heart I could barely logon or read the posts in Women Who Sail. Sailing blogs, which had been a lifeblood for me, were no longer something I could stomach. After years of following boats on crossings and through exotic locations around the world, I couldn’t click on even my most favorite blogs. It is three and a half years later and I don’t read them anymore. The pain from losing the lifestyle is still that visceral.

There’s no way to prepare yourselves for what people are going to say, but I will try to warn you, it’s going to suck. Yes, there will be so many people who will be supportive and understanding. You will also get messages and comments saying that it was your fault, that you weren’t prepared, that you should have known better, and that it served you right. In our case, people also said they wished we were all dead, yes, even our children too. I hope your asshole commenters are kinder than ours were. There will be unbelievably callous remarks, and not from strangers, but from people you know. Like the person who equates losing your boat to losing the family dog. Or the person who shouts loudly to be heard while guzzling beer about ‘who was the one who sank her?’ In your case, maybe this person will instead ask, ‘who was the one to secure her lines, or see her last?’ And these people, who you thought you knew, their words will roll of their tongues so easily, like they’re changing a roll of toilet paper or wiping down a kitchen counter, like the devastation you’ve experienced is just casual chatter. The kind of stuff you talk about while refilling a ketchup bottle.

People you thought were friends, or at least friendly, will show themselves to not be so. The good news is that other friends will come into your life, indeed the kindness and generosity of even complete strangers will overwhelm you. I’m not one to say there is a silver lining to a disaster and you won’t hear me say that hogwash line, ‘it was meant to be.’ I will say that in times of great need, you will see some amazing things come from your fellow humans as they reach out to help and lift you up.

Take care with your relationship. If you are single, then you will need to take care of just yourself, and mending your own heart is a full-time job. If you are in a relationship, and your partner is also suffering the loss of your vessel, you are in a relationship with a person who has also suffered trauma. At first your relationship may seem solid, but it is very classic to start taking out your pain and grief on those who are nearest to you. Recovering from trauma is a slow process. Part of it can be withdrawing or going inward. This can appear like your partner is withdrawing from you. Quicker than you may realize, you can be at a make or break moment with someone you love. See a couple’s therapist. If you really love your husband, wife, or partner, then fight to keep them. You’ll both have to do some fighting. It is worth it.

You could also take all this advice and chuck it. Why? Because everyone’s grieving process is unique and different. I’ve read enough to know there is some universality to the steps of grieving, but it truly will look different for everyone.

The Long Haul

It’s going to be hard to think about in the beginning, but eventually you will be one month, then six months, then one year, etc past this tragedy. The trauma will not leave you. The way it affects you will change. You will gain perspective. I have found that my heart has grown to about four times its previous size. I feel deep empathy and compassion for people in similar circumstances. I volunteer more. I give more. I reach out more. Someday, when the blistering reality of what has happened to you has dulled to a burnished ache (and it will), you will also be looked at to provide guidance in moments just like these. It might happen too soon and you won’t be ready to offer that guidance. That’s okay. You will know when you are ready to slip on the mantle of ‘The One Who Has Walked In Those Shoes.’ It’s a burdensome, heavy thing to wear around your shoulders, but bear it you must, and you will help others get through future disasters too.

Lastly, don’t lose sight of you who you are. People who live on boats are dreamers + doers. They are innovators + adventurers. Sailors are refreshingly alive. Boat or no boat, you are still that kind of person. Keep pushing. Keep trying. Keep inspiring others to pursue a life well-lived. Eric and I may have lost our boat, but we have not lost our rebel hearts; may you keep yours too.


I’ve just finished my first draft of a book about our life aboard Rebel Heart. You can sign up on my email list to get updates on when the book will be published here. The only media interviews we gave after the loss of our boat were to This American Life. You can listen to that episode here and to the Journal of Emergency Medicine, in this article written by Kevin Grange.

How You Can Help

There are many people and groups actively trying to help the victims of Harvey and Irma. My friends, Brittany and Scott Meyers, on Windtraveler, lost their boat (home) and their charter businesses boats with hurricane Irma have a post outlining ways to help here

My friend, Behan Gifford, on Sailing Totem, has linked to resources as well

Tory Fine and John Vidar of (Sail Me Om) are doing important work with their group Sailors Helping. As is the work Jennifer Simpson of Tortola-based Three Sheets Sailing is doing, along with Yacht Sea Boss for relief efforts too. 

For Harvey, this article gives you a lot of options to directly help those affected by Harvey. You can also donate directly to H.E.B., which distributes the funds to the JJ Watt Foundation and the Red Cross.

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